Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"
Featured Post

Put Baby Hitler to bed

Four responses to a question that's been in the air lately: Would you kill that baby if you had the chance?

Suddenly, Baby Hitler is everywhere.

In just the past few weeks, the little rug rat has been featured in the Atlantic and a New York Times poll (here are the results); Ben Carson has chimed in (he won’t kill him if he’s a fetus) and Jeb Bush (“Hell, yeah!”) too, and Stephen Colbert gave his takeThe Washington Post speculated on what a world without Baby Hitler would look like. Social media outlets have piled on the satiric memes and tweets, and yes, there were tasteless Halloween Baby Hitler costumes galore.

All this fuss involves a longstanding ethical dilemma: Given the opportunity to go back in time and kill a two-year-old Adolf Hitler, would we do it?

The public conversation was inspired last spring with the publication of a study asserting that women would be less likely than men to do the deed, even if they knew that doing it would ultimately save more lives, while men were more likely to kill the one to save many more later on.

I picked up on that and decided to respond to the ethical dilemma in four different ways in my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. Then, Baby Hitler went viral.

I’m not implying that there’s a causal effect between my sermons and the current Baby Hitler frenzy.  In fact, I’m a little embarrassed by the connection, which has somewhat trivialized what I hoped was a very serious series of messages. But the craze only validates one of my assertions,that the escalating obsession with Hitler (and by extension the Shoah) has intensified to the point of become unhealthy for Jews and other living things.

Here, in brief, are my four responses to the moral dilemma.  I’m standing over the two year old, machete in hand. What would I do?

  • I’d hug him. 

I truly believe that every act of unconditional love has redemptive power. Each of us has incredible power.  All we need to do is hug a child to save the world.

But instead, what are we doing to our children?

We’re shooting them. We are stabbing them. We are burning them.  We are sacrificing them on the altar of our ambitions.  We are humiliating them.  We are overindulging them.  We are ignoring them.  We are racing them to nowhere.  We are over-programming them.  We are infecting them with hate.   We are victimizing them because we hate.  We are enslaving them.  We are trafficking in them.   We’re allowing them to wallow in loneliness. We are casting them off.  We are burdening them with excessive educational debt.  We are poisoning their earth.   We are filling their bellies with sugary soft drinks. We’re numbing their minds with electronic distractions.  We are failing to show them the importance of service and seeing a world that is much larger than themselves.

For it’s not about the mustachioed child we didn’t hug in 1891, but the cherubic, innocent child we can hug today.  For that hug could save a life, or ten, or, who knows… millions. That hug could avert the evil decree.  That hug could redeem us all.

  • I’d kill him, and in doing so wipe out the “Amalek within.”

In the book of Exodus, after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Torah describes an epic battle in the Wilderness, between Israel and a unique enemy.  The Amalekites, who in fact were distant cousins of the Israelites, attacked them from behind, killing women and children, terrifying the weakest among them.  They were the biblical version of modern day terrorists who strike the young and defenseless and embed themselves within civilian populations.

And Israel was commanded to wipe them out.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev wrote:

Not only are Jews commanded to wipe out Amalek, who is the descendant of Esau, but each Jew has to wipe out that negative part that is called Amalek hidden in his or her heart. When the power of evil in each of us arises, Amalek is present in the world.

What is our inner Amalek?

It is that part us that succumbs to the impulse to take advantage of people’s weaknesses, that is cruel and hateful and angry and derisive and out of control; that force within us that sees every encounter as a means to an end, that objectifies other human beings as if they were pieces on a game board, instead of fellow living, breathing souls created in God’s image.

We’ve got to wipe out THAT Amalek, while it is still playing in the sandbox, before it gets so strong that it takes control of our souls, before we fall victim to our lack of restraint and lower that knife on Isaac.

Since it was Hitler’s struggle to release the world from the “burdens” of morality and restraint, as he wrote in Mein Kampf, all the more is it our crusade to reinforce those so-called burdens.  It is our task to champion conscience.  Our struggle – our Kampf – is to subdue that inclination to follow the crowd, to succumb to our first whim and to mindlessly obey the orders of impulse.

In that way, God willing, may we vanquish Amalek – and its modern incarnation Hitler – forever from within our hearts.

  • We cannot change history, nor should we want to.

David Brooks devoted a recent column to learning from mistakes.  Interestingly, Brooks began the column with that same Hitler analogy.  If we could go back and somehow undo the Holocaust by killing baby Adolf, would we?

So imagine a world with no Shoah.  That is, imagine a world where the deed of killing the young Hitler had taken place.  How different would it be?  A third of our people would not have been killed.  They would have survived to write great novels, make fantastic scientific discoveries and bring Judaism to new heights.

But Brooks asserts that the world we have could never have come to be without World War Two.  The Hitler question is really about changing all of the past.  To erase mistakes from the past is to obliterate your world now, he says.

It’s a good point.  If we were to change any event in history, especially a massive event such as the Holocaust, everything taking place after that event would now be different.  Which means, if you want to get technical about it, that anyone born after the Holocaust would most likely not have been born.

So here’s the trade-off – and THIS is the real ethical dilemma – It’s not whether or not to kill Hitler, so one life would be sacrificed to save millions.  What if the quandary is whether to kill two-year old Adolf and save the six million, but the cost would be giving up your own existence.  Six million survive – and most of us are never born.  Not even Sophie faced such a choice!

Would you choose to have the world exactly as it is right now, with a Holocaust; or one without a Holocaust, but without you…a completely different world with a completely different set of people?  Who knows, possibly no Israel; on the bright side, no Kardashians – but if you are under the age of 70, no you.

So that question about changing the past, teaches us that it is pointless to dwell on the could-have-beens, and points us toward the might-yet-be’s.   The real question at hand: Can we take the long view?

No, I would not change history and kill two-year-old Hitler in order to prevent the Holocaust.  Nor would I go back and change a single choice that I’ve made, even ones that I regret.  Life is not lived backward; it is lived forward.  In fact, it is lived Fast Forward.  It is lived Far Forward.

  • I’d kill him, and in doing so cut off at the roots, at long last, the nightmares that continue to haunt us.

Google “Hitler” and you will find 101 MILLION results — the past year alone, over seventeen million.  The guy is dead seventy years.  We are giving this guy a shelf life he doesn’t deserve.  It’s time to put little Adolf to bed, once and for all.

Seventy years is a biblical lifetime.  It’s a Talmudic generation.  So it makes perfect sense that after seventy years, we can at last envision new possibilities and remove ourselves from the traumas of the past. And now, it is seventy years after Auschwitz.  Is it time, at last, to slay the dragon, the wipe away the nightmare of Hitler, to pull that nightmare out from the roots – as it were – to get up not from shiva but from shiv’im, seventy – and to rise from the chair of grief, to trust the future once again?

Up until recently, I’ve felt it was still too soon; but recent events have convinced me that it’s important for the Jewish people to get beyond perpetual grief and victimhood, to a place where we can once again see all the colors of the rainbow, rather than looking at the world through the grainy black and white of Schindler’s List, punctuated by the occasional little girl’s red coat – or yellow star.

The use of Holocaust imagery was brought to new lows during the recent Iran debate, yes, by our enemies, as it always is, but also by many Jews, too many Jews.  That’s what made me realize how important it is for us to turn the page.  We need to remember the Holocaust, but in recent years, we have converted our priceless, forward looking faith into the Church of Our Lady of the Perpetual Victim.

It came as a bit of a shocker when Natalie Portman stated that maybe the Jewish community is a little too stuck on the Holocaust. She said:

“We need to be reminded that hatred exists at all times…(and we need) to be empathetic to other people that have experienced hatred also.”

She was attacked pretty viciously for those comments, but I think she had a point.  It’s time to stop comparing every diplomatic agreement to Munich, every terror attack to Auschwitz and every dude that threatens us to Hitler.  With all the times Munich has been invoked, one would think Neville Chamberlain had as many potential descendants as Wilt Chamberlain.

By killing the demon, I am not suggesting that we forget.  Heaven forbid we should forget the Holocaust.  On the contrary, any Judaism to emerge out of this new era must place the Holocaust experience directly at its core, or it will not be authentic; it will fail to speak to our need to confront this black hole in our history. But just as the new Judaism we are forging cannot ignore or deny the abyss, it must also speak to our religious need to affirm joy, beauty, renewed life and at least the possibility of a responsive divinity, or it will not be sustainable.  There needs to be a new balance between Auschwitz and Sinai that takes into account the lessons of both.

Our goal should be nothing less than for the next generation to see bearing witness not as a burden, but as a privilege, an honor, and yet another source of pride in who they are.

So I present these four reactions to the baby Hitler dilemma.  How should we respond? 1) By hugging the child, no matter who he or she may be; 2) by reasserting the value of conscience and restraint; 3) by taking the long view and thereby overcoming our inbred self centeredness; and finally, 4) by cutting off at the roots, at long last, the nightmares that continues to haunt us, so that we might learn to have trust once again in the wondrous and priceless gift we have been given.  We must conquer the mistrust that paralyzes us, whether in commerce, in the public square, at home, in the synagogue or in the depths of our souls.

Let’s hope that puts an end to this craze. Let’s put the toddler fuhrer to bed.

Naptime for Hitler.

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as About.com's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: rabbi@tbe.org (203) 322-6901 x 307
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